The Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha justifiably won fulsome praise from all over the world for evacuation of well over a million vulnerable people living on the 480-km long coastline of the state in the hours leading up to Cyclone ‘Fani’, which pummeled the Puri coast at a speed of 197 km/hour on the morning of May 3. And it is now getting all the flak, again justifiably, for being caught grossly under prepared for the massive restoration work that inevitably follows every disaster of this proportion.
Consider this. Eight full days after the cyclone, many parts of the capital city of Bhubaneswar, 55 kms from Puri, are still without power, water and telecom services. Every few kilometers, you will find the streets blocked by angry residents demanding immediate restoration of electricity. “We do understand that it was a big disaster. But it is the ninth day since the cyclone, which should have been long enough for us to get power back, especially considering that it is the capital city,” said Madhumita Mohanty, a housewife who was part of a ladies’ group blocking the road near the busy Jayadev Vihar square in the city on Saturday evening. Even those who were ‘fortunate’ enough to get electricity back are only notionally so. “Power has been off for the better part of the time since it was supposedly ‘restored’ in our area on Wednesday night. It hasn’t stayed long enough even for the inverter to charge up fully. As a result, we are plunged in darkness every few hours despite having power back,” rued Sanjulata Rout, a housewife in Lingaraj Vihar.
The state government has already committed itself to full restoration of power in the city by Sunday. But given the pace at which work is progressing, no one believes it can meet the deadline. Power workers and engineers from Telangana and West Bengal, who have come to help out their Odisha counterparts in restoration of power, complain bitterly that they are sitting idle due to lack of adequate and timely logistics support from the state Energy department.
If this is the situation in the state capital, which also happens to be a ‘Smart City’ to boot, one can imagine how things would be like in Puri, which took the brunt of Cyclone ‘Fani’ on May 3. The state government has already announced that power would be restored in Puri and Konark by May 15 even as it said restoration of power in the whole of Puri district could take up to a month. But no one in either of these two tourist towns believes it can. A tour through the cyclone-ravaged Brahmagiri-Satapada area on Friday left this reporter with serious doubts whether the people there would get power anytime soon. Most interior roads are yet to be cleared of debris while fallen electric poles and transformers are strewn by the side of all roads.
The absence of power has led to a major disruption in water supply. Diesel generator (DG) operators are having a field day renting out their DG sets to lift/draw water for as much as ₹2, 500 for half an hour! The hiring charges began at a modest ₹500 for 30 minutes the day after the cyclone but went steadily up as it became increasingly clear that power restoration would take time.
Most major mobile networks have started working, but highly erratically. Calls, when they do come or go through, seldom last till the end. Whether you can receive/make a call depends largely on which part of the city you are in. “Receiving or making an uninterrupted call is fast turning out to be like winning a jackpot,” said Prabhat Kumar Mishra, a BSNL customer, rather sarcastically. The less said about internet services the better.
The government has announced free kitchens and rations for those hit by Cyclone ‘Fani’. But complaints are pouring in from all over the affected area that while some free rice has indeed been distributed at most places, there are no signs as yet of any cooked food anywhere. Even the free rice is being given only to those who have BPL cards, leaving out a large number of poor people unfortunate enough to be missing in the BPL list. Polythene sheets have been dispatched to the affected areas for distribution among those who have lost their roofs. But actual distribution is yet to start. A little inquiry revealed that the reason for this is that there are not enough of them to be given to those who need them. “The authorities are playing it safe because they know they can’t give them to everyone in which case it would lead to a fight,” explained a PRI member in Brahmagiri.
By now, it has become abundantly clear that the state government was so focused on shifting the vulnerable to safety that it just did not bother planning for the mammoth restoration task that would follow after the cyclone. The 3000 or so workers of CESU, the power utility that provides electricity to much of the ‘Fani’-affected area, have been working tirelessly sweating it out in the scorching May heat and humidity to restore power at the earliest. But they have proved hopelessly inadequate in numbers in completing the huge task on time. To make matters worse, it took the Odisha government four days to realize the extent of damage caused by the cyclone and requisition power workers from other states. In sheer desperation, it has now pressed ITI students to help in restoration work.
Even clearing the debris, green or otherwise, is yet to be completed in the absence of an adequate number of workers. With most sanitation workers of Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) having rushed to their villages to enquire about the well being of their family members in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, clearing of roads was painfully slow and continues more than a week after.
Having handled three major cyclonic storms in the recent past – Phailin in 2013, Hudhud in 2014 and Titli in 2018 – one expected the Odisha government to be better prepared to deal with the aftermath of Cyclone ‘Fani’. But there is no doubt that it has bungled up big time.